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Node module deep-dive: module

Oh, hi there!

Long time, no see.

I took a little break from this blog post series to enjoy the holidays and to code up a new version of Zarf. But I’m back and ready to roll with this blog post series.

I wanna start by looking at the module module (try saying that three times fast!). The modules page of the NodeJS docs contains a plethora of information about the module system in Node. Before diving into the code base for module, I did a quick read through it. I’ll avoid summarizing the content of that documentation page here as I’m focusing on the code but it might help if you skimmed through it before reading the rest of this blog post.

As usual, I started my code read by reading the last few lines in the module.js file.


// backwards compatibility
Module.Module = Module;

So it looks like there is a variable mapping at the bottom with a comment noting that it is for “backwards compatibility.” I dug a little further into this by looking through the commit history on this file. It looks like the change emerged in early-2011 (back when Node was but a wee little baby) and was part of some sort of refactor of the CommonJS module system. The refactor involved moving some files around so the remapping actually predates the early 2011 date. I’m starting to go down a bit of an archaeological wormhole so I’ll stop here and get back to the code.

The _initPaths function is invoked at the start of the file. If I had to do my best to guess, I would say that it would be responsible for initialized some paths — hehehe. The first few lines of the __initPaths function are pretty standard and a common occurrence in the JavaScript side of the code base from what I’ve been reading. The logic is simple: if we’re on Windows, do this; otherwise, do that. In this particular case, the conditional logic takes care of setting up the variable for the directory of the user’s home folder.

Module._initPaths = function() {
  const isWindows = process.platform === 'win32';

  var homeDir;
  if (isWindows) {
    homeDir = process.env.USERPROFILE;
  } else {
    homeDir = process.env.HOME;

The next bit of code also utilizes a similar conditional logic to determine the location of the Node.js installation on the machine in question.

  // $PREFIX/lib/node, where $PREFIX is the root of the Node.js installation.
  var prefixDir;
  // process.execPath is $PREFIX/bin/node except on Windows where it is
  // $PREFIX\node.exe.
  if (isWindows) {
    prefixDir = path.resolve(process.execPath, '..');
  } else {
    prefixDir = path.resolve(process.execPath, '..', '..');

The function then creates a paths array where it stores the potential locations of Node modules at both the Node.js installation and the user’s home directory.

The next bit of code gets the value of the NODE_PATH environment variable. I was a little bit curious about this environment variable name since i hadn’t come across it before. A more thorough re-reading of the modules documentation revealed that this is a little bit of a “legacy” variable from the days when there wasn’t a convention on how modules are loaded in Node.

Side note: Is anyone else a little peeved that the accessor is written in process.env['NODE_PATH'] form and not process.env.NODE_PATH form? No? Just me? OK.

Anyways. The code following this is a bit interesting. nodePath is a semi-colon (or colon, if you’re on Windows) separated string of paths. The next bit of code splits the string on either the colon or the semicolon, iterates through each of the elements (which are paths) in that list and checks to see if they are a truthy value, and then adds them to the existing paths list that we have going. So now our paths list contains a collection of modules at the Node.js installation, our home directory, and the directories referenced in the NODE_PATH environment variable. Sweet-o!

  var nodePath = process.env['NODE_PATH'];
  if (nodePath) {
    paths = nodePath.split(path.delimiter).filter(function(path) {
      return !!path;

Finally, the function sets the value of Module.globalPaths to a copy of the paths list that we just made.

The next function that I thought would be interesting to look at is the require function.

Module.prototype.require = function(path) {
  assert(path, 'missing path');
  assert(typeof path === 'string', 'path must be a string');
  return Module._load(path, this, /* isMain */ false);

So it looks like require does some basic assertions to confirm the validity of the path that is passed and then invokes the _load function. The first bit of the _load function was pretty interesting.

if (isMain && experimentalModules) {
  (async () => {
    // loader setup
    if (!ESMLoader) {
      ESMLoader = new Loader();
      const userLoader = process.binding('config').userLoader;
      if (userLoader) {
        const hooks = await ESMLoader.import(userLoader);
        ESMLoader = new Loader();
    await ESMLoader.import(getURLFromFilePath(request).pathname);

So it looks like we are checking to see if the isMain variable and the experimentalModules variables are true. isMain refers to (I assume) whether or not the require is coming from the main module and experimentaModules refers to whether or not Node is configured to support ES Modules. It looks like if this is the case, the function invokes the ES module loader. I’ll look a little bit more into the ES module loader in another blog post so I’ll forgo diving into it for now. Instead, I looked through the rest of the _load function.

So it looks like the first thing _load does is fetch the filename associated with the module that we are trying to import.

var filename = Module._resolveFilename(request, parent, isMain);

It does this by calling _resolveFilename which does a search for a file with that module name based on the following precedence.

// require("a.<ext>")
// -> a.<ext>
// require("a")
// -> a
// -> a.<ext>
// -> a/index.<ext>

If you read the module documentation linked to above, you’ll recall that Node caches the modules that it requires. This makes the next couple of lines in the code easy to understand.

var cachedModule = Module._cache[filename];
if (cachedModule) {
  updateChildren(parent, cachedModule, true);
  return cachedModule.exports;

So basically, once it has the filename associated with the module it checks to see if that module has already been loaded and is in the cache. If it is, it calls the updateChildren function which (I assume) updates some internal data structure to store the fact that the cached module has now been required by a new module. It then returns the exports that are exported by that module.

The next bit of code checks to see if the module requested is a NativeModule. If so, it passes the require request through to the require function in the Native Module loader. I’ll have to read the code for that at some other point in time.

Side note: Now would be a good time for me to plug my Twitter as a good place to get updates on new blog posts in this series. :)

Finally, if the module has not already been required and it is not a Native module the function invokes the Module constructor to create a new Module object for the particular module we are trying to load and stores it in the cache.

var module = new Module(filename, parent);
Module._cache[filename] = module;

Next it invokes the tryModuleLoad function on module. The tryModuleLoad function is basically a little try-catch wrapper around the load prototype function in the Module object. What the load function does is check the file extension on the filename of the module and then pass it on to a different loader. So for example, filenames that end in .js are handled by one loader and filenames that end in .json are handled by another. From a quick look through, it looks like we can import files ending with .js, .jsonm .node, and .mjs (the file extension for the new ES module system). That makes sense. Each of the extension loaders is ultimately responsible for populating the exports field in the module object which is returned as a result of the require.

return module.exports;

I’ll stop my code read through here to keep the blogpost from running long but essentially, the module loader is responsible for managing caching and lookups of modules (of potentially different types) on our system. If you have any questions or comments about the above, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.